A new exhibition, Constable and Brighton, curated by artist Peter Harrap at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (8th April to 8th October 2017) explores John Constable’s time in Brighton between 1824 to 1828 through his paintings – with an accompanying book published by Scala.
In October 2010 I left London with my partner and fellow artist Natasha Kissell. By strange serendipity, after renovating our Brighton studio, we found out from neighbour and freelance journalist Shân Lancaster that the deeds of the building contained an unusual story. Between 1824 and 1828, John Constable and his family lodged in the house that is now our family home and painting studio. Constable also had a painting room in the house, which was then known as 9 Mrs Sober’s Gardens.
This story inspired me to delve into Constable’s four years in Brighton, research that resulted in the current exhibition of Constable’s works from the period and the publication of a Scala book on the subject.
Constable’s wife Maria suffered from tuberculosis and on medical advice the couple and their children took lodgings in Brighton for extended periods. Despite this, after four years, Maria sadly died at the age of 41.
Constable spent time between his family’s seaside base and London, and in the four years produced 150 works in Brighton. Some were commissions he created in his ‘painting room’ and usually destined for the French market, but his long, systematic walks in and around the town also prompted many other works.
With Constable and Brighton we have brought over 60 of the artist’s sketches, drawings and paintings from his Brighton period together for the first time, in the place where they were created. Focusing on his family life and walks, the exhibition explores the impact and influence of the work he made here; as well as the working practices he developed and the locations and people who inspired him.
Once Shân Lancaster and I had established the location of 9 Mrs Sober’s Gardens, the discovery enabled me to see the unique pattern of Constable’s walking and painting sequences, demonstrating the series of paintings he produced as he explored three walks across the Brighton landscape.
I’ve long been interested in Constable, but to find that he was once based in the house where I live has led me to specialise in research on his life and work. Constable wasn’t a huge fan of busy Brighton, referring to it as ‘Piccadilly by the sea’, but he enjoyed local walks and his time here was very productive. His images of the coast, the South Downs and areas of Brighton’s working life pioneered the practice of painting from life in the open air, later adopted by French artists.
1824 was a time of critical acclaim for Constable’s painting in France, and he could have easily travelled to the Paris Salon to claim the prize he won there, but he chose to ignore repeated invitations and instead walked around the fields just outside of Brighton.
Central to the exhibition for me is Constable’s epiphany, which he had upon viewing Devil’s Dyke and expressed in a letter in 1824, that, “It is the business of a painter not to contend with nature and put this scene (…) on a canvas of a few inches, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical.”
Constable and Brighton is curated by Harrap in consultation with renowned Constable expert Anne Lyles (formerly of Tate) and with support from researcher Shân Lancaster.
- Chain Pier, Brighton(1826–7, Tate), a fine oil painting featuring the early Brighton landmark which was swept away in 1896, in its first exhibition in the city for 20 years.
- Rainstorm over the Sea(c. 1824-28, Royal Academy of Arts).
- A Windmill near Brighton(1824, Tate), a jewel-like pastoral scene of a sun-drenched windmill typical of the Sussex countryside in Constable’s time.
- The artist’s painting box, and his children’s toy stagecoach.
- The gold medal Constable won for his celebrated painting The Hay Wain, when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824 (having been shown at the Royal Academy in 1821).
- Study of the Trunk of an Elm (c 1824 V&A), which was a favourite painting of Lucian Freud and is an unexpected Brighton discovery. Constable has no Hampstead address for 1824 which, following on from extensive research by the V&A, makes it highly likely that this is a painting made by Constable around Preston Manor just north of 9 Mrs Sober’s Gardens.
Constable and Brighton forms part of Royal Pavilion & Museums’ Regency Season in 2017, which includes Jane Austen by the Sea at the Royal Pavilion and Visions of the Royal Pavilion Estate at Brighton Museum.
The exhibition is accompanied by a book of essays, Constable and Brighton, ‘Something out of Nothing’, edited by Shân Lancaster – featuring Peter Harrap, Anne Lyles, Ian Warrell and Sue Berry. Published by Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers Ltd.